Final West Tisbury Buildout Adds 3,000 Citizens to the Population


West Tisbury's development spurt in the 1970s felt more like a surge to the year-round community of 500 living in the up-Island rural township.

The fast and furious growth, which tripled the housing stock and nearly quadrupled the permanent population, loomed over West Tisbury's 17,372 acres through the 1980s. And the townspeople watched beloved farmland, which made up nearly half of the entire town in 1950, dwindle from 710 acres in 1970 to just under 500 by 1990.

Somehow, the town still managed to look rural.

"We still have the great vistas. There are a lot more homes, but there's still open land. The homes are just tucked behind roadways," planning board member Susan Silva said.

When the town of West Tisbury received 300 requests to carve out house lots in a single month in the early 1970s, the town fought back with three-quarter-acre zoning. When the limit did little to curb growth - the average number of building permits jumped from 28 a year in the 1970s to 82 in the 1980s - the town expanded the minimum lot size to three acres.

Complex and serious development issues remain before the town, according to a recent buildout analysis completed by the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and delivered to each Island community this year.

The remaining 4,609 acres of virgin soil in West Tisbury could support as many as 1,289 more homes in the years to come, and that translates to 3,000 more seasonal and year-round residents in the up-Island town. Those new families would funnel 330 additional students into West Tisbury's schools. The new residents could drain as much as 160 million additional gallons a day from the Island's aquifer.

"It's frightening, but not unrealistic," Ms. Silva said. "The question is when."

The answer is tough to forecast.

With a two-year building cap of 42 annual permits that expired last spring, the only growth limit in the town of West Tisbury comes from a 20 per cent annual rate of development for any approved subdivisions, no more than eight dwellings developed in one subdivision each year. The looming question becomes how many developments, and the answer cannot be found within the town's 84 pages of zoning bylaws.

As of 1989, at least 80 tracts of land larger than 20 acres sat untouched within the town. Officials suspect that stock shrank at least by half in the last 13 years.

But the town knows of about 40 large chunks of West Tisbury land left and that a large portion will be shielded from further subdivision because of the desirability of large estates. Much of this land lies along the North Shore.

"If somebody buys a 10-acre parcel on Paul's Point for $15 million, they will not be slicing it. They are in it for the privacy," West Tisbury board of health agent John Powers said.

Many of the 4,609 remaining acres exist on paper only - landlocked between surrounding parcels and with little chance of securing easement, zoning board of appeals chairman Eric Whitman said.

These days, development pressures have cooled just enough for town officials to take off the boxing gloves. No definitive subdivision applications have made it to the planning board in the last two years, and only 18 subdivisions with a total of 151 homes were approved in the 1990s. A set of progressive zoning bylaws, adopted in 2000, pushes any development coming down the pipeline to incorporate open space and affordable housing into new projects.

Fear of suburbanization in West Tisbury - an anxiety that arrived well before America had a word to define cookie-cutter neighborhoods - caused town leaders to adopt flexible development zoning, bylaws that encourage developers to steer toward cluster zoning.

"When we had our community profile weekend, the two main issues that came up were conflicting - open space and affordable housing," Ms. Silva said.

Cluster zoning, which incorporates open space, follows the lay of the land rather than three-acre slices. With new zoning bylaws, developers receive density incentive for more open space and affordable housing contributions.

All may be quiet in the planning board office in West Tisbury, but the zoning board of appeals continues to see a volume of applications, primarily requests for expansions.

"We see a lot of people who bought a piece of land for $10,000 in the 1970s, property that would sell for $250,000 today. They put in the house when they didn't have much money, and now they want to expand a bit," Mr. Whitman said.

A strong spirit of making do with what exists resonates through many other building trends in West Tisbury. The sweeping new zoning regulations in 2000 opened up previously unbuildable lots for affordable homes. A stock of nearly 500 substandard lots sat idly because they fell shy of the 1986 three-acre zoning. Almost 100 of those parcels, according to zoning board of appeals member and West Tisbury builder Tucker Hubbell, are now available for development of affordable housing.

"The bylaw says that if you are willing to sell them affordably, you can get some of your money back [out of the property investment]," Mr. Whitman said.

West Tisbury, like other Island towns, feels the pressures of conservation and affordable housing butting against one another.

"Those of us on the environmental front are very aware of the housing need. We don't want to be the bad guys saying ‘no you can't build,' but if it will harm the wetlands, we must," conservation commission chairwoman Judy Crawford said.

"We try and balance the homeowners' rights and the law," she added.

West Tisbury has reviewed a number of requests to build on substandard lots that are marginal because of water availability and septic system issues.

"When you get to the bottom of the barrel, you see lots that have some issues," Mr. Powers said.

But West Tisbury - pinched by land values soaring above a half-million dollars for single-family dwellings - sees many land owners fighting the urge to sell out or subdivide as tax rates and cost of living continue to climb. The building pressure causes an uncertainty in planning as West Tisbury approaches capacity.

"It's sad when people are forced to sell out because of inheritance or affordability pressures. It's a very emotional process," Ms. Silva said.

"In the meantime, we're just being the best stewards of the land that we can be," she added.